[by Harrison Maddox] The weather forecast heading into the weekend wasn’t promising: rain was a sure thing and thunderstorms were a near certainty. But when you plan a bikepacking trip a month in advance, schedules are shuffled, accommodations are made, excitement builds. Though there was some uneasiness about our impending trip, it was pretty clear that none of us were bailing on this one.
Our crew for this outing was a mix of old and new faces: Sam, owner of The Community Bicyclist (Little Rock’s bikepacking clubhouse); Philip, electrical engineer and tinkerer extraordinaire; Efren, local mechanic and all-around good guy who opted to ride his Surly Long Haul Trucker (we were all a bit anxious to see how it handled the often roughshod gravel roads of the Lake Sylvia area).
We all met at the bike shop early on the appointed morning. It’s a great place to start a trip–stocked with parts, nutrition, repair stands for last-minute adjustments and, generally, anything you need for an overnighter. Upon rollout, we agreed that burritos were the best possible way to kick off a 24-hour sojourn into the woods with storms looming on the horizon (not a bad last meal). With Phil’s car loaded up like the mountain bike battlewagon that it is, we headed to Popular Fast Casual Burrito Chain and stuffed our faces with food.
An hour later we were rolling on dirt, headed southwest from Lake Sylvia Recreation Area. We had about 15 miles ahead of us, which doesn’t sound like much until you factor in the added weight on the bikes and the unrelentingly uphill nature of the Ouachita National Forest’s logging roads. Nonetheless, the weather was perfect and we were ecstatic to be out again. A few hours of riding and a few false summits later, we reached The Perfect Campsite, our pre-appointed “see what the weather is doing and perhaps set up camp” spot. Weather radar informed us that we were indeed still in for an unfair amount of foul weather. Seeing as our potential campsite sat on an exposed ridge, we chose to move on in search of lower ground.
Another 45 minutes of riding brought us downhill to a small clearing that we agreed would be relatively safer in a lighting-and-high-winds scenario. I was a bit apprehensive about the tall, slender pines that encircled the plot, so I was relieved when Sam spotted an even larger clearing across the road–more of a field, really. We moved camp a few hundred yards and got to work setting up our shelters and starting a fire. Within an hour we were all seated around a roaring fire, trading stories and sips of whiskey as we devoured our dinners.
Sam, Efren and I stayed up until nearly midnight, watching the fire slowly die. When we finally turned in and fell asleep, it wasn’t for long. It’s quite an experience to be tucked into a sleeping bag within a minuscule tent and hear the rumble of thunder grow closer, the flash of lightning grow brighter and the onslaught of rain hit so suddenly it surprises you. Aside from a healthy apprehension about becoming a lightning strike statistic, I now feel that there’s no better way to experience a storm than inside a tent. The pelting of rain on waterproof-coated nylon can be a calming sound. The rain and rumbling went on for an hour or so and then left the night a quiet, muggy mess.
Morning came late for most of us–breakfast and coffee were slowly concocted and soggy gear was packed up for the return trip. The ride back was sublime; we had warm weather with a bit of cloud cover and happened to encounter the flattest bits of road in the whole Ouachita National Forest. An accidental shortcut (we were missing our route master, the legendary Jason Alexander) kept our ride nice and easy. We found the ideal spot for a lunch break and continued on for a brief (but brutal) uphill spell that brought us to the beloved “two miles of heaven,” a stretch of Forest TR 152 that’s all downhill to the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area parking lot. It’s been the grand finale of more than a few trips and no feeling is better (or perhaps bittersweet) than a warp-speed descent that ends at the car.
All in all, a great time with great people. Efren’s LHT performed admirably on the often-loose terrain, nobody had a serious mechanical issue and we avoided storm-related injuries. The route was one of my favorite parts of this particular outing, and I imagine we’ll revisit it soon.